Willoughby Hills Fights Cuyahoga's Expansion

Passions in Willoughby Hills continue to grow as residents and leaders confront the possibility of Cuyahoga County Airport's expansion.

It has been a major issue for decades, but it took on new gravity when Mayor Kenneth Lorenz last month announced the likelihood of an expansion.

Late last week, the City Council hired David Zoll, a Toledo lawyer, to help Willoughby Hills fight any expansion. And officials and residents spent much of Tuesday meeting with airport officials to voice opposition.

Cuyahoga County has been working on a master plan for the airport, located in Richmond Heights, for nearly three years. It is long overdue, officials say, since the last one was finished in 1977.

To meet the needs of the airport's main customer, Flight Options, the county needs to extend a runway by about 1,000 feet and add 900 feet for a safety area.

Flight Options, which allows people to own fractional shares in a plane, uses aircraft that increasingly need longer runways, said Paul Oyaski, Cuyahoga County director of development.

But the process of expanding an airport is complex and is at least five years away - and that's without litigation. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to approve any expansion. At that point, the county could not afford to expand unless it got money from the FAA.

"The first step would be to work with the host communities and submit a preferred alternative to the FAA, and if they approve, then a formal environmental process would start and that takes two to three years and there's multiple opportunities for the public to be involved," Oyaski said.

"We've been acquiring land at either end of the airport since the 1980s," Oyaski said, with the idea that at some point a runway would have to expand.

While residents in Willoughby Hills appear united in their opposition, opinions diverge when the discussion turns to probabilities and timing.

Council President Robert Weger said a favored option in a master plan is expansion into Willoughby Hills.

But "this is far from complete," he said Thursday. "It is not certain. It is not concrete."

He and other council members characterized Zoll's hiring as a precaution.

Lorenz continues to insist that the airport will expand.

"Today they said when the steam shovel goes into the ground it could be anywhere from five to seven years. That was their term - one of the consultants" for Cuyahoga County, the mayor said.

Lorenz said residents of Richmond Heights and Highland Heights in Cuyahoga County also oppose any expansion.

Some council members believe Lorenz acted rashly when he announced the expansion in late January and named streets where people were certain to lose their homes.

Councilman David Reichelt criticized Lorenz for inducing a panic that could already have affected some property values.

"We asked him not to announce it that night," said Councilman Raymond Somich, who wanted the city to investigate first and talk privately with the homeowners.

All of the elected officials oppose expansion in any direction, they said, because it would bring more noise, more exhaust fumes and more traffic over the rooftops of Willoughby Hills.

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